Chilling effect of egg freezing

by Ruth Nichol / 08 April, 2016
“Social” egg freezing to delay child-rearing may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images


Tech giants Apple and Facebook were the first to offer free egg freezing as a job perk to attract more female staff. Now the US Army is doing the same in an attempt to encourage women to stay in the military during their prime childbearing years.

When US Defence Secretary Ash Carter announced the policy in January, he said the pilot programme – which includes free sperm freezing for male soldiers – would give military staff “greater flexibility” about when they start a family.

It sounds simple enough – a chance to beat that pesky biological clock by harvesting your eggs while they’re still young and storing them to use once your career is established or Mr Right has come along.

But it’s not quite that easy. John Peek, group operations manager at Fertility Associates, says egg freezing makes sense for women who are about to start cancer treatment that may affect their fertility. In fact, the procedure is now publicly funded for childless New Zealand women with cancer who are aged 39 or under.

“The alternative is that you may not have any eggs once your treatment is finished,” says Peek. “It’s an optimistic thing to do for the long term.”

That has certainly been the case for Aucklander Amber Arkell, who had eggs harvested shortly before starting chemotherapy for breast cancer in February. Arkell, 26, who is blogging about her experience on a Facebook page called When Things Went Tits Up, hopes she will eventually be able to conceive naturally. But she’s pleased to know she has a back-up.

“I have five perfect mature eggs – I’m really happy about it.”

However, Peek says egg freezing makes less sense for healthy women with no known fertility issues looking for an insurance policy against future childlessness – what’s known as social egg freezing. For starters, it’s expensive. It costs up to $11,000 for one round of ovary stimulation, egg harvesting and egg freezing. Some women need more than one round to get enough eggs.

Storage costs another $264 a year, and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment further down the track will add another $4400 to the bill.

Even then there are no guarantees you’ll get pregnant. Freezing eggs is much more difficult than freezing embryos, which is now a routine part of the IVF process. A new flash-freezing technique has improved egg survival rates, but too few have been thawed and fertilised to know what proportion of them will produce a baby. ­Worldwide, about 5000 babies have been born using frozen eggs, compared with about five million using fresh eggs. In New Zealand only a handful of babies have been born from frozen eggs.

“Egg-freezing technology is still relatively young so it’s hard to know how successful it is.”

Recent American figures show that about a quarter of frozen eggs that are subsequently thawed result in live births. The success rates are much lower for eggs from women in their mid-to-late-thirties – 17% for eggs from a 35-year-old and just 13% for eggs harvested once a woman is 40.

As Peek points out, the odds don’t really stack up as an insurance policy. “With insurance, you pay a modest amount of money to protect yourself from a calamitous thing, while with egg freezing you’re paying a lot of money for a very modest chance of a payout.”

That hasn’t stopped many fertility clinics overseas from aggressively marketing social egg freezing, although the number of women opting to have the procedure is still low. It’s even less popular in New Zealand. Peek says about 20% of the 120 or so women who have had their eggs frozen at a Fertility Associates clinic have done so for social reasons.

Women thinking of joining them may not necessarily welcome his advice. He suggests that rather than trying to delay childbearing through egg freezing, they should ask their GP for an anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) test to check their remaining egg supply. Then they should start thinking seriously about how – and when – they could have children without using reproductive technology.

“Reproductive technology is brilliant for people with problems, but people need to stop thinking of it as an alternative [to natural conception] and see it as a backup.”

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest

Excavated cult-horror film Suspiria is an ambitious failure
98994 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Movies

Excavated cult-horror film Suspiria is an ambitiou…

by James Robins

Released in 1977, Dario Argento’s campy Suspiria was a landmark in cult horror. Now, director Luca Guadagnino has remade it in a new style.

Read more
Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on his 'cultural schizophrenia'
98517 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Books

Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on hi…

by Craig Sisterson

Abir Mukherjee uses India’s painful struggle for independence as the backdrop for his Sam Wyndham detective stories.

Read more
Lunchtime legends: 5 hospo stalwarts on Auckland's restaurant evolution
93848 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Lunchtime legends: 5 hospo stalwarts on Auckland's…

by Alice Neville

Restaurant veterans Chris Rupe, Krishna Botica, Tony Adcock, Geeling Ching and Judith Tabron reflect on the Auckland dining scene.

Read more
Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is good too
97751 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is go…

by Metro

Head to one of these Metro Top 50 Cheap Eats and 50 under $50 restaurants for BYO dining that won't break the bank.

Read more
Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La Fuente
99033 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La …

by Jean Teng

Mezcal was once regarded as a tipple for the lower-class – now it's the hero at new bar La Fuente.

Read more
Forget the love trysts, our relationship with China is a much bigger affair
98673 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Forget the love trysts, our relationship with Chin…

by Bevan Rapson

Ross’s tape didn’t stand up his allegations of electoral fraud, but it helpfully drew renewed attention to questions about Chinese influence in NZ.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man walking
98830 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man …

by Bill Ralston

The National Party’s ongoing ructions suggest a long spell in the wilderness lies ahead.

Read more
The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Facebook generation
98735 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z History

The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Faceb…

by Karl du Fresne

In the 19th century, there were more newspapers in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere else in the world says writer Ian F Grant.

Read more